What is the Importance of Studying Behaviourism?


Behaviourism is a psychological theory that emphasizes observable behaviour rather than the mental process going on within. It says that behaviour is learned by conditioning, where people respond to stimuli in their surroundings. Classical conditioning, introduced by Ivan Pavlov involves associating a neutral stimulus with a natural response to make a learned response. Operant conditioning, proposed by B.F Skinner involves the use of rewards and punishment to shape and reinforce the appropriate and desired behaviour.

Behaviourists suggest that behaviour can be modified through conditioning and that people are influenced by their environment. Critics often oppose behaviourism as they neglect the role of cognition and internal mental processes in understanding behaviour.

Related: Classical Conditioning: A Simple Exploration through Ivan Pavlov 

Importance of Understanding Behaviourism in Psychology

It is important to understand behaviourism in psychology as it helps us:

  • Explain and predict behaviour: Behaviourism gives us a framework to know why people behave the way they do. By noticing their observable behaviour we can analyse patterns and make predictions about future behaviour. For example: when a child is appreciated for completing their homework, they are more likely to continue doing it in future. 
  • Modify and shape behaviour: Behaviourism gives techniques to modify and shape behaviour with the help of conditioning. For example: during therapy, behaviourists use this technique of systematic desensitisation to help individuals overcome phobias or anxieties by gradually and progressively exposing them to their fears in a controlled setting. 
  • Improve education and learning: Behaviourism has brought changes in teaching methods by introducing reinforcement and giving clear instructions. For example, the teacher may praise (positive reinforcement) to encourage desired behaviour in students such as active participation in class. 

Contribute to research and practical applications behaviourism has made the way for research in areas like behaviour analysis, behavioural economics and behaviour modification.

Related: Remembering B.F. Skinner and His Contributions to Psychology

Historical Background

Behaviourism as a psychological approach caught attention in the early 20th century and had a significant impact on the field of psychology. It was initially developed by psychologists John B. Watson and B.F Skinner among others. 

Watson is also referred to as the father of behaviourism. In 1913 he published an influential paper called “Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It”, where he argued that psychology only focuses on the behaviour that can be observed rather than subjective mental processes. Watson believed that all the behaviour can be explained with the help of conditioning and he conducted experiments to support his ideas.

Ivan Pavlov: not strictly a behaviourist, Ivan Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning greatly contributed to behaviourism. This famous experiment with dogs demonstrated how behaviour could be conditioned by making an association between stimuli and responses. This theory of classical conditioning became an essential component of behaviourist theory.

B.F Skinner: After Watson, Skinner expanded behaviourism and introduced the concept of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that behaviour can be changed by reinforcement and punishment. He developed the Skinner box, which was a controlled environment, to study how animals learn and respond to various stimuli. His contribution had a significant impact on behaviour modification techniques and animal testing.

Read More: The Psychology of Behaviour

Criticism and evolution: Later, Behaviourism faced criticism for its focus merely on observable behaviour and neglecting internal mental processes.

Application of Behaviourism:

  • Behaviour modification techniques
  • Behavioural therapy approaches 
  • Educational settings 
Behaviour Modification Techniques

Behaviour modification techniques refer to the strategies used to change behaviour patterns they are based on the principles of behaviourism and use reinforcement, punishment and other conditioning methods. 

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Punishment
  • Extinction
  • Shaping 
  • Token economy 
Behavioural Therapy approaches 

Behaviour therapy consists of various approaches that focus on the modification of behaviour to improve mental health and well-being. 

  • Cognitive behavioural therapyThis approach emphasizes the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It helps people recognise and change negative thought patterns and behaviour. 
  • ABA (Applied behaviour analysis): ABA treats ASD and other developmental disabilities. 
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy: Helps in building skills in emotion regulation and mindfulness. 
  • ERP( Exposure and response prevention): It exposes people to anxiety triggers and prevents compulsive responses.
  • Social skills training helps in improving interactions and relationships
  • Behavioural activation helps increase engagement in positive activities to boost mood. 
Educational settings:
  • Reward for good behaviour to encourage positive action among students.
  • Using behaviour contracts helps in setting clear expectations and consequences. 
  • Implementation of token economies to motivate students with rewards.
  • Teaching social skills to enhance students’ interaction with others. 
  • Addressing challenging behaviours with behaviour modification techniques.

Core Principles of Behaviourism

  • Classical conditioning – It is when there is an association formed between a neutral stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus to show a desired response. For instance, if the dog starts salivating when the bell is rang as it has been paired with the presence of food. 
  • Operant conditioning: this principle talks about learning through experiences and consequences of previous actions. Actions or behaviours that are reinforced are more like to occur in future. While those that are punished are less likely to be repeated. For example, if a student gets praised for completing his homework, he is more likely to do it in future too.
  • Reinforcement: reinforcement is anything that can help in strengthening a behaviour and increase the possibility of that behaviour to occur again. 
    • Positive reinforcement means adding something desired, like giving a good remark reward or sticker for completing a task. 
    • Negative reinforcement means taking something away to get things done in a desired way. 
  • Punishment: it is the opposite of reinforcement and is used to decrease the occurrence or repetition of a behaviour. 
    • Positive punishment – Adding something aversive, or unwanted.
    • Negative punishment – removing something desired or wanted.
  • Extinction: this happens when an old behaviour is no longer being reinforced which leads to a decline or decrease in the occurrence of the behaviour over time.

Read More: Schools of Thought in Psychology

Contemporary Relevance of Behaviourism

  • Applied behaviour analysis
  • Behavioural interventions
  • Behavioural economics
  • Organizational behaviour management
  • Animal training
  • Education
  • Health behaviour change 

Read more: 5 Principles of Behavioural Economics

Take Away

In conclusion, behaviourism remains a foundational theory in psychology, offering valuable insights into learning and behaviour modification. Despite criticism for its focus on observable behaviour, it continues to be relevant across various fields such as education, therapy, and organizational management. From classical and operant conditioning to contemporary applications like applied behaviour analysis and behavioural economics, behaviourism’s impact endures, shaping our understanding of human behaviour and guiding interventions for positive change.

Reference +
  • By, Mcleod, S., on, U., & 1, F. (2024, February 1). Behaviorism in psychology. Simply Psychology.
  • Tprestianni. (2023, August 17). Behaviorism in education: What is behavioral learning theory?. National University.
  • (PDF) behaviourism. (n.d.-b).
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